Despite a three-hour discussion that left many confused about its outcome, City Council President Paul Strong said the council took a definitive step Tuesday in its quest to crack the quagmire on how to best manage large, national chain stores that some say threaten the economic vitality and character of a small town.
For the past year, the city has held forums and discussed how it should manage big-box retail.
"It is nice to not just talk about it and actually take some steps forward," Strong said.
As a result of the joint discussion between the City Council and City Planning Commission, the council directed staff to draft an ordinance that:
n Strengthens design and architecture standards for big-box stores;
n Requires stores larger than 12,000 square feet to go through a more stringent Planned Unit Development process that requires demonstrating their public benefit;
n Limits big-box stores to 20,000 square feet on the south side of town.
"Is this the perfect answer? Probably not," Strong said. "But it is the first step, and we will probably go from there."
The discussion is far from over; the council's directions have to come back in the form of an ordinance, requiring a first and second reading, before anything is passed into law.
The council also could continue to discuss imposing a size cap on commercial stores. On Tuesday, council members threw out arbitrary numbers but were unable to come to a consensus on a size limit, if any.
The council also directed staff to consider requiring big-box stores to do an economic and community impact study before getting city approval.
The clock is ticking for the council, which on March 16 passed a 90-day emergency ordinance putting a moratorium on accepting development applications for commercial stores larger than 12,000 square feet.
Strong, who brought the emergency ordinance before the council, said that when the moratorium expires June 15, another one will not go in its place.
"I have no intention of extending the ordinance," Strong said. "I want to get this taken care of in this time span."
When the 90 days are up, Strong expects to have two of the council's directions passed into law: Requiring any commercial store larger than 12,000 square feet to go through the PUD process and placing a 20,000-square-foot cap on commercial stores south of downtown and below the ski area.
Making design and architectural standards more stringent could take more time, Strong said. Nonetheless, the two ordinances that could go into effect when the moratorium expires are significant, he added.
The PUD process is used for developments requiring more than two variances; most large stores already go through that process, Strong said. The council's new direction, however, would require the big-box stores to show public benefit -- and that benefit would have to increase with the size of the proposed store.
The council's direction to limit commercial stores to 20,000 square feet in the area south of downtown essentially would place any larger big-box development in the west end of town. The council asked staff to review the city's code for the downtown and gondola areas to ensure big-box development could not occur there.
City planner Tim McHarg, who was assigned to help formulate a big-box retail ordinance, predicted a May 13 Planning Commission meeting will be the first time the ordinance comes before a voting body. Coming up with stricter design and architectural guidelines could take months, he said.
Some of the tools that could be proposed to the council include asking developers to break up the mass of a big-box building and to make it more pedestrian-friendly by having more than one entrance.
The local design community should be part of the process, McHarg said, and the city could look at hiring consultants to help develop the guidelines.
Groups that have lobbied for stricter big-box controls would like to see economic and community impact studies in place.
The Community Alliance, the downtown and mountain business associations, and the Steamboat Springs Peace and Justice Center have worked together to ask the city to put an ordinance in place.
During Tuesday's meeting, Community Alliance President Diane Brower asked that the council place a 30,000-square-foot cap on commercial stores. Steamboat has more than three stores larger than 30,000 square feet, with Wal-Mart the largest at 55,000 square feet.
For stores larger than 8,000 square feet, Brower requested that a needs-assessment survey be done on existing businesses to determine the need for the proposed development. At 12,000 square feet, the recommendation was for an economic and community impact analysis. And for any development more than 20,000 square feet, she asked that an economic and community impact study be done with mitigation required for those impacts and the assurance the development would be a public benefit.
"I am pleased the (discussion went) broader and deeper than it has in the past," Brower said of Tuesday's meeting. "I would just like them to be a little more forthcoming or proactive."
Brower maintains that, in a town the size of Steamboat, the city should put limits on how large a big-box store can be. The group is continuing to do research on other communities' impact studies.
"We hope to keep communicating with the City Planning Commission and the City Council, to see if we can find some medium place that is more comfortable for both sides," she said.
The council has not ruled out a size cap or an economic study, Strong said.
At Tuesday's meeting, the council voted 3-3 not to have any size caps in place. The council also voted to have staff compile more research on economic and community impact studies.
Strong and other council members said they would be willing to look at a study for larger big-box stores but were hesitant to require a study that could negatively impact small, locally owned businesses trying to expand.
Strong also said requiring big-box developers to do a economic or community impact study has not been tested in Colorado's courts and could have legal snarls.
"These (big-box) companies have deep pockets and are happy to take you to court to test these things," Strong said. "There is some concern as to its validity."
Supporters of the economic and community impact study have pointed to the town of Carbondale, which in November enacted an ordinance that required the town's planning staff and board of trustees to weigh the community and fiscal impacts of large-scale retail development before approving the project.
McHarg was unsure an economic or community impact study would be an objective tool and create enforceable mitigation criteria, he said. With questions arising on existing studies, such as environmental impact statements, McHarg wondered how much harder it would be to assess qualities that are not as well defined.
"I don't know how you do that with economic, social and the ultra-nebulous character impact," he said.
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